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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)


There are two distinct areas that improve your chances of locating a stolen car. The first is areas where cars are taken from and the areas they are dropped. The first should be obvious. If you have an increase in either stolen or recovered vehicles in a specific area, you are near a fishing hole. The second less obvious, is to go where other crime occurs. Any area on your beat where you have a narcotics problem is likely to have a greater percentage of stolen cars. Also, research indicates you need two things for the likelihood of a crime to occur – young men and alcohol. Seriously, that’s hard research data. You get both elements at bars. Make bar parking lots and surrounding areas places at which you hunt for stolen cars. Add to bars, low-end motels and I will wager that if you consistently check the plates on the cars in the bar and low-end motel parking lots you will find stolen cars.


Developing informants, especially citizen informants, is the hallmark of a great beat cop. Throughout the last seasons of the HBO television show the Wire there is a Middle School kid who loves cars. More importantly, he loves to steal them. It is a running joke in the neighborhood. Everyone, except the police, knows the kid steals cars. When you talk to people, ask them about crime – dope, money, guns, who is wanted (or thinks they are wanted) and add stolen cars to the list of your questions.


As a watch commander, I would watch cops write down the wanted information in their notebooks. Rarely did someone come back to the station in the same shift with the stuff they had written down. I think this was because there is too much going on. I developed a simpler system. You don’t need to memorize the plate of every stolen car, but if you can remember enough to jog your memory – at the right time – you will make great observation arrests. Go into records, detectives and listen to the watch commander. On freshly stolen cars, memorize just enough. As an example, if I told you a vehicle with the plate 2NMG187 was stolen, could you memorize the plate and recall it throughout your shift as hundreds of cars passed you? You would be more likely to remember pieces of information you can relate to other information. With that plate, I would memorize one of two things 1) NMG – No More God. Now, throughout the shift, every plate with NMG would draw my attention. 2) 187 is the California Penal Code Section for murder. Again, every plate with 187 would come to my attention. Try attaching parts of the plate to some other piece of information and then using that as a pointer.

License Plates

Over the years, this has become more complex. It used to be fairly simple: old cars can have new plates but new cars can’t have old plates. Before the barrage of vanity plates, plates were issued primarily by series. This is still, to some degree, solid information. In most states, you can tell what year a plate was issued by the number. So, if a new car had a plate that was issued five years ago, it was likely “cold plated.” Paying attention to the series is still good cop work. Moreover, plates that aren’t securely attached, the light is out or perhaps the number is partially obscured, bear a closer look.


There are any number of “cheat sheets” you can buy that will tell you where secondary and hidden VINS are located. In your kit bag, carry a little degreasing substance, a dirty rag and a mirror and you are on your way to becoming an expert. If you are impounding a car anyway, check the secondary and hidden VINS. A couple of minutes extra work could lead to an excellent arrest.

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  • Photo_user_banned_big


    6 days ago


  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 2 years ago


    Indeed, your tips are very useful. But we also have to be very careful about situations that no one expects. A colleague of mine spotted what he thought to be a stolen car, but the true is that the one driving it was the real owner just because some guy decided to donate a car. Just like that. So imagine in what position the policeman put that poor man.

  • Img_20140823_202523_max50


    about 3 years ago


    This article helped me tremendously with building PC and other things to look for while on patrol. Thank you I look forward to learning helpful tactics like this article outlines, in the years to come. Thank You!

  • Fbi_max50


    over 3 years ago


    One of my friends is part of a Ford dealers Des Moines team and let me tell you that one day he found 5000$ in an used car. He tried to call the owner to give him the money back, but he never managed to actually find him because he only provided a cell number which wasn't working anymore. I bet that money could be stolen. I will call my friend and let him know. He should call the police.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 4 years ago


    I always rent my car from a Fox Car Rental agency because I don't need a car daily and if my car would somehow be stolen, I would feel very bad. That is why I prefer renting my car. A person who steals your car has no interest in preserving its integrity in case of a police chase.

  • Esu_patch_max50


    about 4 years ago


    I like the bug strikes on the rear plate thing, never thought of that one. I also found that lots or perps would never use the a/c in a car. It could be a 100 deg July day and theyd be riding around with the windows open in a late model car that should have a working a/c unit. I used to think it was because they wanted to be able to hear better like the yelp on a siren, who knows.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    Good article, but I think you left out a couple of things. As an investigator of auto thefts, the majority of what you say is true, however, my biggest issue is with the confidential numbers. I would not suggest you tell patrolmen to look for secondary numbers in the field. I have seen many officers simultaneously teach a potential perp. exactly where the hidden numbers are located by accident. Even though an arrest can be made, the next time he/she is stopped, the numbers will be removed. SECONDARY NUMBERS SHOULD ONLYBE LOCATED IN A CONTROLED ENVIROMENT, AWAY FROM PUBLIC VIEW.

    You did not mention defeated door locks, broken windows that have been taped up, windows pulled out of their frames, license plate and inspection sticker from a diffrent state, driver's seat in the half-rest position while in motion, rags tied around the steering column, concealing the damage to the ignition switch. A few additional tips to metnion to your readears.

  • Ph-10492_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Something I don't think was mentioned that's led to 2 stolens for me was insect/bug strikes on the rear plate. ended up plates were removed from another vehicle and the front plates were put on the rear of the stolens.

  • Drknite_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good Info..

  • Me_max50


    over 4 years ago



  • 792504602_1__max50


    over 4 years ago


    A very informative article that is very useful for the patrol officer. You can look for a few more "indicators" of vehicle theft activity such as busted out wing windows, punched out vehicle locks, "bogus" buyers/dealer temp Texas there are many types of these tags, so when you run them they should come back with a return...if not then you might have a "hit". WATCH OUT for BOOBY TRAPS in abandoned vehicles!!!!! Be safe and God Bless!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    While recovering stolen vehicles on probable cause traffic stops, I learned to identify false VIN plates by the various types of rivets that are supposed to be on the particular make and model of a vehicle. I could not believe how easy it was using the rivets and how offenders didn't know what we know pertaining to that. I carried a small book the size of a wallet with all the rivet types and which vehicles use them. Whn I learned this practice, I immediately walked a parking lot area with my little book and found two vehicles in one parking lot with switched VIN plates. For security and other reasons, I purposely avoided naming the title of the book I referred to. You can contact your local state highway patrol, if you are a peace officer with a need to know.

  • Pug_max600_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Excellent. Also check for altered or obscured VIN numbers.

  • In_remembrance_of_oakland_pd_max50_max50_max50_max50_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    All good info, good article.

  • 0503091740_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Who cares if it's "profiling" or not. Stereo types are there for a reason: when I was 16, I was pulled over almost every time I drove. --With good reason too, 16 year olds can't drive well, and teenagers are usually up to no good anyways. AND in my small town, alot of kids drove without even having a licence, or they were drunk or high, so it was a good thing they were pulled over

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